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Another .400 summer

Kansas City Royals v New York Yankees Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images

Once a year, I like to riff on various topics. Call it my “get off my lawn column”. With July moving into August, there’s a certain desperation in the air. Summer is in the fourth quarter now and if your baseball team is out of it, it’s a downer. In the Royals case, I’ve taken to calling this, “another one of those summers”.

The Royals have had a lot of these summers. Over the past 30 seasons, Kansas City has had seven winning summers. Seven. This is General Manager Dayton Moore’s 16th season on the job. During that time, the Royals have had three winning seasons, one at .500 and 11 (soon to be 12) losing seasons. Has there been a GM at any other franchise in any other major sports league that has managed to keep his job with that kind of record?

The crazy thing is, I like Dayton Moore. He came in when the Royals were at absolute rock bottom, and he turned it around. He looks the part. He talks the part. I just don’t have confidence that he and his staff have the ability to bring another playoff run to Kansas City. It’s a tough job. It’s hard to get to the top and even harder to stay there.

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For a small market team like the Royals, everything has to go right. You have to draft well. You have to scout and sign strong international talent. You have to hit on your trades and your free agent signings. And you better be able to develop talent.

The Royals had a chance to have an extended winning window starting with the 2013 team. That team won. And it was wonderful. Unfortunately, since the 2008 draft, not much has gone right. The Royals picked Eric Hosmer with their first pick in 2008 and he developed into the player they expected and the player that they needed. 2009 brought Aaron Crow and Wil Myers. Myers has been a 12 WAR player, but never played an inning in Kansas City. 2010 was the Christian Colon draft. 2011 brought Bubba Starling. 2012? Kyle Zimmer. 2013? Hunter Dozier and Sean Manaea. 2014, Brandon Finnegan, Foster Griffin and Chase Vallot. 2015 – Ashe Russell and Nolan Watson. Even the vaunted 2018 class, Singer, Kowar, Lynch and Bubic has struggled, though there’s still time for them to figure it out.

The trades and free agent signings have also, for the most part, flamed out. You get the idea. None of this is new information. Every fan of the Royals knows it and it’s been talked about on Royals Review ad nauseam. In my years of watching baseball and researching stories, I’ve come to two conclusions: one, most impact players make it to the league between the ages of 19 and 22.

Most genius, whether in art, music, literature or sports, presents itself at a young age. Mary Shelley published “Frankenstein” at the age of 20. Bill Gates founded Microsoft at 20. Steve Jobs co-founded Apple when he was 21. Jackson Browne was 22 when he wrote “Doctor my eyes”. Al Kaline made his major league debut at age 18 and won a batting title at 20. George Brett made his debut at age 20 and won his first batting title at age 23. Genius strikes early. I’ve always believed it was the same with ballplayers. If a guy is going to be an impact player, by the time he’s 19 or 20, you have a pretty good idea. Granted, there are a few who make it at later ages. Whit Merrifield comes to mind, but if a guy hasn’t made it by 23 or 24, his chances of becoming an impact player are greatly reduced.

Two, to win a title, a team needs five or six impact bats and the same number of impact pitchers. The Royals powerhouse teams of the ’70s and ’80s had George Brett of course, but they also had Hal McRae, Amos Otis, John Mayberry, Darrel Porter, Frank White, and later, Willie Wilson. Add in other solid complementary players like Fred Patek, Al Cowens, Steve Balboni, and Jim Sundberg and you can see why they were a power. On the mound, they had Steve Busby, Dennis Leonard, Paul Splittorff, Dan Quisenberry, and Larry Gura. Al Fitzmorris, Doug Bird, and Jim Colborn were solid complementary pieces. Bret Saberhagen, Charlie Liebrandt, Mark Gubicza, and Danny Jackson came later. Those teams were a little light on the impact pitching. And that probably cost them a World Series or two.

The 2014-2015 Royals were similar. They had Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, Sal Perez, Lorenzo Cain, Alex Gordon, Kendrys Morales, and for a short time, Ben Zobrist, all impact bats. Greg Holland, Kelvin Herrera, and Wade Davis were impact pitchers. They had just enough solid complimentary pitchers to push them over the top. Guys like Yordano Ventura, Edison Volquez, Chris Young, James Shields, and Jason Vargas.

This brings us to the 2021 Royals. They have two impact bats: Whit Merrifield and Sal Perez. Andrew Benintendi is a very solid complementary guy. You’ve noticed I’ve left out Adalberto Mondesi. There’s no question that the guy has talent, but he’s been injured so often that he’s undependable. When he is on the field, he’s wildly inconsistent, either scorching hot or ice cold. What do they have on the farm besides Bobby Witt Jr.? Nick Pratto? MJ Melendez? If they both make it to Kansas City in 2022, they’ll already be 23. Can they continue to develop into impact bats? Will they be complementary guys? Even if those two arrive and develop, it’s not enough.

How about on the mound? Right now, I would say they have two potential impact arms in Kansas City: Josh Staumont and Scott Barlow, and both of them have been plagued by injuries or inconsistency. Brad Keller, Brady Singer, Jake Brentz, and Kris Bubic could become complimentary guys but I’m not sure they’ll ever become impact arms. What’s on the farm? Kowar, Lynch, and Asa Lacy? Time will tell. Even if the staff develops five or six impact arms, they’re still light on bats.

The front office has talked about a 2023 contention period. Unless there is some massive development in eight to ten players and two or three impact free agent signings, I’m not optimistic. I think the contention window is further out. I hope I’m wrong.

Changes

Over the years, change often comes slowly to baseball. Connie Mack first proposed the idea of a designated hitter, way back in….1906. The American League finally adopted it in 1973. Baseball didn’t integrate racially until 1947 and the Boston Red Sox shamefully held out until 1959! 1959! That’s insane!

There are two changes that have been bandied about recently, and they seem to be gaining support: the 20-second pitch clock and automated ball/strike-calling.

After watching the 20-second clock in minor league games, I am fully on that bandwagon. It does speed up the game a bit, but more importantly, it keeps the game flowing. I mean, do you really enjoy watching a player who’s hitting .170 step out of the box after every pitch and adjust both of his batting gloves, twice, while Steve Physioc tries to fill that dead time? I don’t.

Automated ball/strike calling is more controversial, but I think it’s an idea whose time has come. The technology exists. Professional tennis has been using a similar system since 2006 and it eliminates controversy over missed calls by human judges. I like the idea and would like to see MLB try it for a year to see how it impacts the game.

Pitch counts

Another topic that has been heavily debated this year has been the Royals starters’ inability to consistently get into the seventh inning. This has put undue pressure on their bullpen, which naturally, has had injuries and moments of implosion. Theories abound on this, with the most common being that pitching coach Cal Eldred needs to be taken to the gallows.

I want to propose an alternate theory, which may be met with derision, but deserves consideration. I do not have any hard data to back this idea, just eyeball accounts over the past 4-5 seasons. In past years I have noticed a trend that when Royal pitchers are ahead in the count, say 0-2 or 1-2, they will often burn a pitch, trying to get the batter to chase. Normally you’ll see the pitcher bounce a curve or slider at 59 feet or throw one eight inches off the plate trying to get the chase. I mean, why not? Royal batters have been chasing those pitches for years.

My problem with it is if the batter doesn’t chase, and a lot of time they don’t, and the next pitch or two is also a ball, then the pitcher has to come in with something across the plate. The batter knows that and the advantage switches to the batter. I looked at the statistics from 2017 to 2021 and since then, the Royals staff has consistently ranked near the bottom of the American League in hits allowed, walks allowed, and runs scored.

If the Royals pitching philosophy is to nibble instead of attacking the plate, whose call is that? Is it the pitching coach or does Sal Perez call for pitches off the plate?

I don’t have the time or data-crunching skills to fully investigate this theory, but you can see how burning pitches would easily run up pitch counts and account for why Royal starters rarely make it out of the fifth inning. Or maybe the starters just have terrible control. Either way, it drives me nuts. I’ve always believed in the philosophy of attacking hitters. Get ahead in the count. Make the batter hit your best stuff. Let your defense help you. There are a few cardinal rules of baseball, a bit like the “unwritten” rules that drive everyone batty. These are fundamentals that used to be taught in Little League: Don’t run yourself out of an inning. With two strikes, protect the plate. Don’t watch a called third strike. Hit the cutoff man. Walked runners almost always score. I’ll repeat that one - walked runners almost always score.

Trading time

There’s always a lot of speculation this time of year about the trade market. Dayton Moore has shown that he’s not afraid to trade or sign free agents, it’s just that he’s not very good at it. The last impact free agent he signed, who made a multi-year contribution and was just not a future trade chip, would have been Kendrys Morales, way back in December of 2014. The last significant trade pieces he picked up would have been Johnny Cueto and Ben Zobrist, both in July of 2015. They were both short-term acquisitions and left in free agency after winning the World Series. The Royals lost Sean Manaea, a solid pitcher, in the Zobrist trade.

Since then, his trades have mostly been a disaster. He got one good year out of Jorge Soler in exchange for Wade Davis. He gave Matt Strahm to the Padres for a trio of stiffs. He gave Scott Alexander to the Dodgers for a couple of stiffs. He traded Jake Diekmann to the A’s for a couple of stiffs. He got Ronald Bolaños from San Diego for Tim Hill, and that trade may still pan out. He sent Trevor Rosenthal (one of his better free agent signings) to San Diego for Edward Olivares and that trade might pan out if the Royals would commit to giving Olivares the playing time he deserves.

I did like the Andrew Benintendi trade - at the time it was made and now. The point I’m getting at is, I just don’t have a lot of confidence in Moore’s ability to trade major league players for prospects who will turn into major league players. If you continually swap major league talent for AA and AAA talent that never makes the show, what have you done? You’ve weakened the entire system.

Even with my low confidence level in Moore’s horse-swapping ability, I do feel like it is time for Kansas City to part with Whit Merrifield, Danny Duffy, Michael Taylor, Carlos Santana, Hanser Alberto, Mike Minor, Jorge Soler, Greg Holland, and Wade Davis. If you can get a Class A lottery ticket for the last four names, take it. The others should have better value.

The Royals aren’t going anywhere in 2021 and none of these players will be in the game the next time Kansas City challenges for a playoff spot. The farm needs bats in a big way. It’s time for Moore and his staff to accept the obvious and clear out the roster.

Alcides Escobar

Speaking of trades and free agents, I’d like to congratulate Escobar on making it back to the majors. Alcides of course, came over from Milwaukee in the Greinke trade. He was an ironman at shortstop for the Royals between 2011 and 2018 and helped lead them back to prominence. He caught a lot of unnecessary grief for being Ned Yost’s leadoff hitter. Blame Ned, not Alcides.

Escobar spent 2019 in the Chicago White Sox minor league system and played in Japan in 2020. Dayton Moore signed him as a free agent in early May of 2021 to serve as depth on AAA Omaha’s roster. Escobar didn’t complain, he just showed up at the park everyday and played ball. On July 3, the Washington Nationals, battling the injury bug, purchased Escobar from the Royals and put him in the lineup. He got seven hits in his first twelve at bats. Good for him. He’s appeared in ten games for the Nationals and is batting a respectable .273. The Nationals are 42-48 as of this writing and probably won’t make the playoffs, but here’s a big shoutout to Escobar for hanging in there and making it back to the big time.

Los Angeles Dodgers v Washington Nationals
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Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images